Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Conventional Wisdom

There are conventions, and there is wisdom, but so far as you've been able to see, there is no conventional wisdom that can be agreed upon.   Conventions are agreed-upon or legislated behavior, such as the drivers' seats in American cars being on the left side, you having Friday morning coffee with a particular group at a particular place, and Sunday breakfast somewhere altogether else. 

Convention is using the serial comma in books or not using it in magazines and newspapers.  In American text, the punctuation marks go inside the quotes, but UK conventions call for the commas and other stuff to go outside the quotes.  "Right?"  "Right you are".

Convention suggests a form of accord among a defined group that is often willing to take their accord to extremes, even to the point of investing their accord with some divine inspiration, for example Martin Luther nailing his edict to the door of a church.

In considering this, you are reminded of your concept of story, which now becomes transmogrified to two conventions, each believing there is only one source of divine inspiration, each believing it is the one.

Wisdom is another matter, every bit as idiosyncratic as the previous examples and permutations of conventions.  In your experience, wisdom is often attributed to the elderly, an acquired trait, a product of considerable trial and error, thus by implication the result of looking at and then attacking problems.  Good luck with that.

From early years, we are subject to inspirational propaganda about the virtues of wisdom, where it is to be found, and how to acquire it.  In retrospect, you can see where your parents had ample measures of wisdom.  

You were not always wise enough to see that.  This means wisdom, like conventions, is in constant flux.  What appears to be wisdom at one point may turn out to be something altogether different at other times, different enough to appear unwise, dumb, perhaps even dangerous.

There have been times when you made decisions based on your immediate perception that you were being wise.  In yet other instances, you dithered to the point of considering yourself untrustworthy.  Such considerations do not add to an overall sense of confidence.  This leads to the great existential question:  Is it wise to be confident?  

Back in time, when the Greeks were running all over philosophy the way Bill Gates and Steve Jobs ran over computers and their operating systems. you could have your choice of an operating system based on your inherent trust of things and persons or such other approaches as being standoffish with what the French would call sang froid running through your veins.  Leave it to the French to come forth with a term for cold blood that sounds like a variety of wine.

You have chosen as your default positions being unconventional and lacking in wisdom, thus not wise, which seems to you to relate to making sane, conventional decisions.  Your preference is to make unconventional decisions that in fact warm up the blood, get you to a point where you can barely control your enthusiasm long enough to write it down.

One of those Greek philosophers was, in your opinion, nailing the matter when he, Heraclitus, wrote about the eternal flux of Things, by which you believe him to have meant Reality.  You cannot, he wrote, bathe in the same river twice, much less take the same bath twice, nor can you make the observation about it more than once without becoming repetitive and, even worse, derivative.

At your current stage of relative wisdom, you believe it is not a good plan to copy yourself.  If you once did something well, nice to think about it in retrospect, then try to do something else at a different degree of wellness.

You also believe it a good practice to question anything of apparent conventionality before embracing it.

Monday, October 20, 2014

"Dad?" Yeah, Dad. That Dad.

By the time you chose your career path, you already had many favorite writers among whom to chose.  Some of these were still alive, turning out, as writers do, the occasional short story or essay in addition to a new novel.  

Some of these writers were individuals you wanted to keep up with, in order to read their new work.  The thought never occurred to you to engage in outright competition, much less think you were then or were going to become better than they.

Even when Philip Roth published his stunning breakout work, the novella Goodbye Columbus, which was published with three of his shorter stories, the effect on you was a serious bout of envy.  You were of about an age, which was bad enough; he had ever so much more of a grip on narrative voice and ways of converting concepts into characters.  

Your funk lasted about a month, during which you did a good deal of what you thought F. Scott Fitzgerald would have approved of, which is drinking great quantities of gin and vodka.  When that got you nowhere other than financially depleted and grouchy from hangovers, you got back to the only things you could think of in your attempts to catch up with Roth.

It was your good fortune rather than your good sense that arrived to get you out of that problematic stage.  By increasing your attack on reading and writing, you were so distracted from your supposed competition that he'd managed to produce two or three more books you hadn't the time to read because you were too busy trying to keep up with yourself.  

Your good fortune was the ultimate reading of his latest books and recognizing he was no longer someone you should compete with, rather someone you should read with scrupulous care to see how he arrived at such a compelling narrative voice that he could win you over to believing the things his characters said and felt.

Many emerging writers of your time were aware of the influences of Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot.  Again, fortune served you well. You didn't "get" Eliot for some time to come. You'd already set out to read the entire Hemingway works, looking for themes, trying to develop a vision similar to his elliptical approach where he led you right up to the edge of where he wanted you to feel, then pushed you right in after his characters.  "Oh, you mean subtext," am instructor you greatly admired said of your discussions of Hemingway.  

Since this instructor was being published by Knopf and his short pieces were appearing in The New Yorker,  you allowed yourself to be led away from Hemingway after one last fling at his most recent work, The Old Man and the Sea.  Given your attendance at a campus of the University of California with a large, visible C marker on one of the nearby hills, you undertook your prank with a piece called The Old Man and the C.

It did not occur to you that a classmate of yours was who he was until he told you one afternoon, "Dad liked your piece."

"Dad?"

"Yeah.  Dad.  We got back on speaking terms, which means I send him letters and he answers them, so I sent him your piece and he said it was pretty good stuff."  Once again you were made aware of how, for all your reading and attempts to acquire sophistication, naivete stalked you with a particular vengeance.  Your classmate's name was Hemingway.  You knew that well enough, but there was no further connection until.  Until.

During those times, you were still propelled by the enthusiasm of  being youngest.  Once again, accident and good fortune spared you from being completely insufferable.  You also have occasion to use the word "callow" when you communicate with some old friends from those days, of course using the term in reference to yourself.

The good fortune got you into the accident whereby you became pretty good at being an editor without having to go to New York or Boston, the major places one went to to take on this craft.  By the time you'd got to New York, you'd earned the necessary craft to have dropped a few pounds of callow and picked up a few of such things as empathy, respect, and a significant sense that the things you thought were things one could do alone.

And there's the message, isn't it?  Any craft has to be learned, practiced, investigated, accommodated.  You're aware of particular editing skills and skills in your composition.  Because you're aware of them, you don't get to walk away without thinking about them.  Everything has to be honed.  Everything has a specific time before you can rely on it, use it as a tool instead of admiring it in someone else.

The list of writers you're crazy about has grown in exponential units over the years, dedicated men and women who have earned their way to the point where they can use their craft as muscle memory.

The more of these you read, the more you're aware of this:  Every time you're assigned a project to edit, every time you start a new book or story or essay, it's as though you're having to start fresh, because this one, whether your own writing or your editing of someone else's writing is fresh and new, isn't it, and to keep up, you have to be fresh and new as well.




Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Where did you go?" "Out." "What did you do?" "Nothing."

 From your middle teens until you moved from your parents' home, you were an unwitting but energetic participant in a drama centering on when or if you'd come home.  Beyond a certain point and age, probably around age eighteen, your interests in adventures tended to override the responsibility ingrained in you by your parents to let them know.

This is no doubt one metric to apply in the matter of when a chick should leave the nest.  You can appreciate your parents' concerns all the more in the retrospect of knowing individuals whose parents cared less than your parents or perhaps did not care at all.  Adding to the index of retrospective wisdom is the array of conditions you were in when you did come home at whatever hour you indeed came home.

Only on rare occasion did you leave with the intention of drinking more than was prudent or smoking more than wise, or combining such teen-aged chemistry as Dexedrine, pitchers of beer, coffee, and brandy.

Lest you paint yourself too deep into the corner of debauchery, there were times when the only beverage consumed was coffee or such bad wine that a glass of it was enough for the rest of the evening.  These were times of excited, flamboyant conversation, the conversation of the young, the idealistic, the  ambitious, discussing themes and content of works we hoped to write at some time in the immediate future but which had not yet been committed to paper.  These were also times when you were just smart enough to shut up and listen when in the company of older men and women who were in fact putting words on paper that found their way into publication or performance.

And there were the hours in which you listened to conversations of another sort, of jazz mostly, but sometimes of the classical.  These "conversations" more often than not took place early in the morning, say one or two or three.  It is not so much a fact that jazz relates best to the later, darker hours as it is a fact that jazz conversations seem to play out later in the day because the bright, sharp hours are the times for practice.

With no children of your own, you did not experience the "It's midnight, do you know where your kids are?" syndrome, therefore it might seem disingenuous to say you had cats and dogs who waited for you to come home and seemed to you then, and in fond memory now, to regard you with a reproof suggesting they had a greater interest in you than dinner. Nor will it help much to say you had three bluetick hounds who, on any occasion you took them for a walk of consequence, might catch a scent, then be gone for upwards of two days.

A pet that has gone missing seems to wrench you in ways you'd thought behind you, reminding you again how a boundary is trespassed when you give more than dinner to an animal friend, you give them a part of your confidential self and feelings you reserve for the special few.  

You told your  special  blue tick hound friend, Edward, on two particular occasions when you thought you'd never see him again, that he'd all but broken your heart.  He, noble and irascible fellow that he was, looked at you as if to chide you for your sentimentality, then to assure you that you'd not seen anything yet.  Indeed, when he did not live out a normal life span, you understood beyond grief for the normal, the grief for the missed potential.

There are times when you are up nights, waiting for a story or concept or idea to come home.  For all you know, it is off on a carouse with some great friends or merely wishes to remain alone, or perhaps has taken the tack that it wishes to hide from you because you are making too much of it, attaching too much to it.

You've had the "Where did you go?"  "Out."  "What did you do?"  "Nothing."  dialogue with your parents, and with a chorus of animals.  You try your best to be matter-of-fact with your current cat, Goldfarb, and you think you're successful.

You think you know how your parents felt because even then you were in the formative stages of wanting substance to those stories that did not come, or, when they did, seemed more like excuses than story.  At some point, you were able to articulate this process to the point where you saw it first as a process, then, with deeper consideration, as The Process.  Just as you did when you went out at night or Edward did when he caught a scent,

The daytime hours are for practice.  The Process sends you out at night, during the intimate, dark hours where dreams and intensities and visions coalesce in the early morning mist.  There is often no telling how long you will be gone or what condition you will be in or if your heart will be broken.

You will get home when you get home.  But you need coffee and early to work.  No matter what, the daytime hours are still for practice.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dealing with Your Interior Edwin Booth

The second best thing is to come to the table feeling pretty much the way you did this morning, leaving the studio with neither hard cash nor your wallet and its supporting cast of credit cards.  True enough, you were well enough known at your venue of choice, and truer still, you could--and did--sign the tab for your breakfast.  But the feeling is a scary one, causing you to reflect on things before your coffee was prepared and your oatmeal put on the boil.

Suppose you sit to compose with nothing in the tank, no vision, no irritation at some human foible, only instead the sense you are not known here, the sense of wonder that you could have ever thought to have written a short story or essay much less a novel or a book length essay.

Being caught out that way makes you think of the close relative of sitting at your desk or chosen workplace to begin composition or, better still, to continue something you'd started yesterday or, best case scenario yet, something you'd been grappling with for some time, on occasion it getting the better of you, on other occasions, you managing a page or two of stature, pages that hold up under scrutiny and remind you of the inherent promise of the project in the works.

The process is not rational.  In one of your pocket-sized notebooks, you have a list of the next five books you'd hope to write.  This notebook is no surprise to you.  On frequent occasion, you consult it, looking for the same kinds of energy you get when listening to and absorbing music.  

The ideas all seem sound, placed with firmness against your vision of yourself as a writer.  But there are days when these five projects seem well beyond your reach or, worse still, beyond your interest.

You tell yourself at the outset that with these five books, undertaken, then completed, you will surely have found at least one more to add to the list.  Even if the answer is no, these five are it, there is some satisfaction in knowing you're not the loafer the sceptic of your worst dreams insists you are.

So you begin, cumbersome sentence on the screen or notepad, followed by a sentence of a bit less cumbersomeness, until there is a page in which one or two sentences, all but simple declarative sentences, have a jaunty resonance.  This is all it takes to urge you to risk another of the turgid, sclerotic sentences.  

If your luck holds and you don't put too much thought into the process, the cumbersomeness seems to be in retreat.  You can now risk reading an entire page, hopeful of finding the flutter of life within the paragraphs.

These are the daily equivalents of driving to work in a city with dense traffic.  You live there, the traffic is, yes, dense, and so you have to put up with it.  Worst case is that some days, you'll be a bit late arriving to work.  If you had to look back to recall a time where the go-to-work traffic of writing was so dense that you missed an entire day of work, you'd have to rely on guesswork.

Days when you are well launched into a continuing task are your first choices unless, as you noted earlier, some extreme aspect of you--with good reason, you call him your inner Edwin Booth--jumps up before you, shouting "Sic semper tyrannus," as Booth was said to have done before shooting President Lincoln.

The process devolves to a statement you gleaned from a textbook in Psychology 1.  "The organism thinks well of itself."  In your case, even if there is a momentary hiatus from the esteem and energy needed to undertake composition, reading a few pages will often cause you to wave Booth away with a dismissive, "Oh, come off it, man."

Even if the pages don't work, a more reliable person than booth will appear.  "You might want to rethink these pages in the following ways," he will suggest.

And you will see what he means.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Story? Or History?

If a story is repeated often enough, it will become history, with the possibility always there of it growing into legend.  Events, regardless of what they are called, depend for their stature on those who participated in them and those who interpret or, in any number of ways, respond to them.  

Whenever you get to this part of your attempts to deal with history and story in some kind of context that reflects you, chances are you'll be drawn to one of the prime examples stored away in your memory. 

Back into a history of which you never participated, made epic by a storyteller who also did not participated, but rendered into glowing legend.  Henry V, Act Iv, Scene III.  The famed St. Crispin's Day speech, in which Henry, about to engage the French in the Battle of Agincourt, October 25, 1415, says:

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.


Matters increase in complexity when fiction writers take on events and personalities. Depending on where you went to school and how you were presented the information, the War between the American States had produced enough written and filmed material to keep a historian, a writer of fiction, or a combination of the two, at a Sisyphean task of trying to keep up with all the impressions.  This particular war was over by most accounts in the year 1865.  And Stephen Crane, born in the year 1871, was able to write The Red Badge of Courage, a fictional account of it that was published on October 5, 1895.

A safe approach to writing history or story would seem to be writing only about events that took place in the writer's own lifespan or close to it.  But this begins to teeter in the wind or conflicting logic and past performances.  

True enough, one of the individuals often associated with the origins of history, Herodotus (484-425 BCE) gave us significant descriptions of things he'd seen at first hand, reported things he'd learned from individuals he knew and respected.  But he also indulged in speculation and inference.  One of the reasons why we trust him is his insistence on telling us what his sources were, even copping to the "It is said of the Persians" trope, because he'd not interviewed or observed a Persian.

For reasons you believe you understand now, you were for some time content to ignore history, this in your eagerness to get your hands on and read as many of the things from the past that you could get your hands on, wanting to absorb them the same way you absorb story.  The context in which such things were written only began to emerge as important when you saw beyond the mere presence of a thing to the reason for the presence of the thing.  

Thinking about it now, the likelihood is strong that a particular work of history, Barbara Tuchman's magisterial A Distant Mirror, helped you turn the corner.  And about time.  Published in 1987, this book compared the fourteenth century to the twentieth, made more points of comparison than you were comfortable with, sending you back to play the game of catch-up, in the process understanding things you previously considered facts meant to be memorized rather than used.

If there is no objectivity possible in story, the best you can do is respect the characters you encounter and those you create, understanding that they are a part of a history that was, after all, initiated by humans, who wished to keep some sort of record.  You do not so much write about miscreants and self-absorbed sorts as you do about girls who have stumbled down the wrong rabbit hole and boys who have run away to join the wrong circus.  They are your girls who have stumbled down the wrong rabbit hole, but in fairness to them, they were looking for what they considered the right rabbit hole.  They are your boys who took any circus that came along, just as you did when Foley and Burke Shows came along.

You derive considerable pleasure in seeing different versions of the same play, differing editions of the same story or novel.  These are the differences that make history of story.






Thursday, October 16, 2014

Plot, Locale, Landscape, and Zoning Laws as They Relate to Story

Story has to take place somewhere.  At the outset, the venue is within the imagination, a place that has come on occasion to remind you of some of the more extreme real estate sales persons you've known, men and women who, like your imagination, are trying to sell you things.  The sales persons and your imagination have in common the ardent desire to get you to see possibilities.

One sales person wanted you to see the possibilities in a back yard.  "Gardens,"  she said.  "Exotic gardens, as wild as your imagination."  She also passed along visions, couched in clever questions, of you watching fires in a fire pit, barbecuing, and writing under the umbrella of a large oak, much in the manner one of your favorite writers, D.H. Lawrence, employed.  "Can't thou see yourself being productive here, doing things you'd never done before?"

She had, you recall, above average verbal skills.  In a way, that was her undoing; she had you seeing how much work some of these possibilities would entail, work that would require sums of money your imagination had not as yet showed you how to acquire.  This meant you'd be doing the work, scrounging time away from writing time.  Even then, you could see the possibilities of how much time and work the writing was going to require, with no guarantee of a specific delivery date.

Another real estate sales person asked you to see other possibilities, which, in this case, related to possibilities the neighborhood would evolve into the real estate equivalent of a cash cow.  "You could rent this house to some nice, upwardly mobile couple, which would allow you to travel or support yourself while finishing enough of a novel to get a sizable enough advance to live on."

The more you thought of these real estate brokers, the more you saw the aptness of the analogy between setting, imagination, and story.  You have come closer than you find comfort in admitting to using the same techniques on story projects as these real estate persons were using on you.  

You were in effect waving your hand over the visible scope of an idea, asking--no, pleading with your imagination--to see the possibilities.  This story could serve as a cornerstone for two or three subsequent works, building momentum as it built credibility and plausibility.  This story could open the door on a narrative technique that has the effect of bringing the reader yet closer to the characters than even some of your favorite storytellers.

At the time (and even now)plausibility is a word you use with some frequency relative to story.  The story, its denizens, and its locales must be plausible; they must seem to be as obvious and yet anomalous as the clean-hands dispensers at supermarkets.  Possibilities must be plausible, even though you've moved away from earlier preoccupations with fantasy and magical realism.  You wish your stories to so radiate plausibility that readers will be drawn into them because they transmit a troublesome sense of possibility.

You hope to cause the reader to say, I know this story is plausible because I have been in a situation similar to this and have felt as uncomfortable as Lowenopf's characters are feeling. There is little or nothing arranged about this story.  This story makes me realize how uneasiness sneaks up on people these days to a greater extent than ever before, but I am not knocking that some really serious stuff happened before.

Your stories have taken place in places so ordinary, say the back seat of an AMC Pacer, that you need to add a note of quirkiness or mystery otherwise they would seem too plausible and thus too labored to be taken seriously.

All of this goes on in one way or another in that early stage of the imagination as civic booster, ala Sinclair Lewis's eponymous Babbit.  Your imagination is going over the real estate with you, asking you to consider things, and you haven't yet set foot inside the house.

Real slate or marble on the counter tops.  Serious, oak flooring.  Hey, check out the teak used in the balcony.  You ever see a laundry facility like this in a single-dwelling house?

Story not only has to take place somewhere, that place, however plausible and fraught with possibility, has to have a distinctive personality because nothing can be left to the imagination to deliver.  You have to decide upon and deliver such things as menace, vital decisions to be made, hints at who can be trusted, will the deck flooring withstand another party, who to root for, and that often ignored sense of how the characters will come to terms with this building, this room, this place, this car.

Nobody gets a free ride, not even you.  Even though your presence ought not to be felt in this terrain or landscape or lot or condo, you still have to do all the work, no matter what they tell you.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Past Catches Up with

Sometimes the past catches up when you are not looking.  You are, in fact, focused off to the sides, caught up in delicious or fearful distractions, but never boring ones.  Boring things have become like mosquitoes on a Summer's night, things to be swatted away.

Perhaps you are trying to game the system by seeing way off into the future.  This means you have been caught up in plans, schemes, stories to the point where you now believe you have enough to move on them, hopeful of implementing them, hopeful of some tangible result.

In any of these cases, you are not prepared for the way the past will pull you off the scent.  There is some likelihood you are engaged in getting as far from the past as possible, attempting to escape from being the hostage in which you were held, reassuring yourself how steady and certain the decisions you are about to make now have become. Even if this is not the case, you cannot help asking if it is so, wondering if the past and your memory of it is reliable.

You do want reliability, don't you?  You do want some validation that the decisions you are about to make from this moment forth have greater gravitas or humor or reliability or resonance than the ones you made some time ago. Isn't that what growth and experience, and understanding, and story arc are all about?

Some of the decisions you made in the past were of an equivalent value to the stories of young persons deciding to run away from home, not by any means because you were subject to abuse or even misunderstanding but because you interpreted your circumstances in a way that allowed you to believe you were misunderstood.

Plans, schemes, and stories begin in the now moment, but they want to work their way into the future to provide a goal you've been harboring for a long time.  Although you try not to think of it as such, in most cases, you need the past as a leavening, a benchmark of some sort to show you where you've been, perhaps even to delude you into thinking you've come along farther than you in fact have.

Look how easy it is for the past to bring in this sense of enigma so vital to story.  If a thing is too clear or too certain, trust and confidence begin packing their bags, wanting a quick get away.  When a thing is swirled in the mystery of maybe, it has the most power over us, arresting our certainty.

You find yourself wishing to join those who appreciate an instinctive flash of insight, a blaze of understanding, a lightning flash that illuminates the way out of a problem or sheds light on an entryway you'd overlooked.  There have been times when such visions appeared.  You seized on them without question or hesitation because of a past history in which you were too many times in a dither, hesitant instead of propelled into the risky future by the engines of instinct.  You saw virtues in being decisive.

But consider this, while you were seeing virtues in decisiveness, you were experiencing at first hand being seen as impulsive.  Wasn't this little more than an existential version of the half-full/half empty glass riddle? Where to go with this dialect?  Why, into the future, of course.

Your personal experiences with instinctive visions and leaps into the future and your growing awareness of the experiences of others has lead you to a place where the shadows of choice and decision have begun to reveal themselves as tangible forms.  

The men and women who have produced things of resonant value for you may have started with a slight glimmer of vision, but then came to the place where they had to dither and fret, do and revise, do and throw away, only to begin from the source once again.

A look at the night sky, a painting, a design, a page of story all seem so intuitive, so fresh and gravid with meaning and implication.  So yes, the past catches up when you are not looking, bringing you implication, fresh batteries for your portable lights, codices of information presented to you now, as though for the first time.  The past brings information, but it may not always be the most reliable, and so you dither, then pick a direction.  Then act.